Friday, May 14, 2010

A magical time in the Faber Archive

Having been one of the lucky six people given a chance to go and visit the Faber archive as part of a competition run by Culture 24 I wanted to provide a report on what happened on what was a magical evening.

After turning up and being greeted by the incredibly friendly Gemma Lovett and making our way up to the archive, time seemed to pause, as we sat back and soaked up information and the atmosphere.

The evening was split into three parts with the first bit spent with the archivist Robert Brown using photographs to tell the history of Faber & Faber and the influence of TS Eliot on the company.

A series of black and white photographs and a couple of videos took you on a virtual tour of the old Faber building in 24 Russell Square, which is now where SOAS is housed, and introduced you to the idea of the book committee and the way the company chose to accept or reject manuscripts.

Having seen the book committee at work in a 1951 video we were then shown some of the ledgers which marked down some of the decisions including the one made in 1944 to reject Orwell's Animal Farm.

The second part of the evening then moved on from the ledgers, kept in their beautiful copper script, to more of the physical objects that live in the archive. These included a postcard from Philip Larkin and some doodles made by TS Eliott as well as the rejection comments made on the decision to turn down William Golding's Stranger from Within, which became Lord of the Flies. It was dismissed in no uncertain terms as being far-fetched and 'dull'.

In the end the story of how Lord of the Flies did manage to be published was just as interesting as the rejection letter. Saved from the slush pile by another editor it was edited down by two thirds and became the book we all know today.

Just sitting round the very table that the book committee meets round and where Eliott would have sat was something very special and I have to admit to touching it with some reverence.

The archive keeps the correspondence of the authors and poets that are on the Faber roster and we were allowed to see some of the letters that were deemed to be suitable because of course with some writers the people mentioned and the decisions described are still living and live.

Finally to show how the archive was a living and developing body two of Faber's poets, Joe Dunthorne and Heather Phillipson read from their own work and other Faber poets, including Charles Simic, John Berryman, Simon Armitage and Don Paterson. The readings were intimate and powerfully showed just why everything Faber does matters.

The Faber archive is a wonderful insight not just into how one particular publishing house operated but into a world where the written word matters. Of course it is a business and money has to be made but the passion for books swamps the very air in the Faber offices and it was wonderful to be allowed to breathe some of that in for an hour.

My thanks to all those that organised it and I hope, for the sake of the many friends that told me they would have loved to have gone, that after this first run Faber will open the archives again and allow more book lovers into look at these fantastic objects of history.

In the meantime keep an eye on the web because Gemma and colleagues are scanning documents whenever they get the time and the archive is going to be digitized so the world can see some of the marvels in the archive.


Anonymous said...

sounds like a wonderful evening simon and a glimpse behind the curtains ,stu

Simon Quicke said...

it was stu. A night that will live long in the memory

Anna Maria said...

Yes, it was magical:-)

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